Land of Shipwrecks and Farms
Words & pics Franki Black
Conrad Vlok, winemaker and manager of the Strandveld Winery, doesn’t understand how it’s possible for anyone not to know their neighbour. In the Strandveld, where he comes from, neighbours sample wine together, they fish together and they celebrate catch of the day by opening another bottle of top-notch wine. Dirk Human, Conrad’s friend who lives five kilometres down the road, sums it up perfectly, “When a newcomer moves to the area, we arrange a party so that he or she can meet everyone.”
The low-lying Strandveld is situated between Gansbaai, Cape Agulhas and Bredasdorp. Its soil is fertile, its koppies overflow with springs and it offers country living coupled with coastal wonder. Perhaps the most remarkable part of the Strandveld is its history. Since the 1400’s ships have been wrecked along its treacherous coastline and legends about castaways, heroes, salvage missions and the odd ghost abound. Nearby towns like Struisbaai, Cape Agulhas and Hermanus have modernized (often undesirably) at an astonishing rate and over December it is hard to buy bread at the local shop. Venture a few kilometers inland to the Strandveld and you’ll find quiet wine farms, walking trails, historic cottages and the Black Oystercatcher, a restaurant that prides itself on serving cuisine sourced within a 50-km radius. The Strandveld is so close to the sea that you can wake up on a farm, drive 20-minutes and spend the day on the beach.
The Strandveld Winery
We leave Cape Town on a Friday afternoon and two and a half hours later, we arrive at Africa’s southern-most winery, Strandveld. It’s pitch dark outside. Conrad emerges from a cottage dating back to the 1800’s with a torch and a warm welcome. Good company and a traditional farm dinner await. “Fishing is big in these parts,” says Conrad with a knowing smile. It’s hard to imagine that we’re so close to the sea, but freshly-caught mussel-cracker sizzles on the braai. Fishing is Conrad’s third love. His first is his wife Suzan and their two children, and his second is winemaking. “We started making wine here in 2005. At the time it was a bit of a gamble, as no one had made wine in the Strandveld before,” Conrad explains as he fills our glasses with delicious Shiraz Rosé. Local conditions proved perfect for winemaking - fertile soil, a cool climate and a hefty ocean breeze – and since humble beginnings, Conrad has gone on to win a Veritas Double Gold medal, as well as a Gold medal at the International Wine & Spirit Competition for his 2010 Strandveld Sauvignon Blanc. Both his Sauvignon Blanc and his 2009 Strandveld Adamastor received 5-star ratings in Platter’s South African Wine Guide.
The evening turns merry, as Suzan presents a spread of traditional goodness: venison pie, freshly-baked bread, lamb chops, broccoli in white sauce, followed by flambéed pancakes. “You have to choose a fatty chop,” recommends Conrad. “Here in the Overberg we have the best lamb chops in South Africa.” Conrad and Suzan have lived on the farm for ten years and they still think it is heaven. The conversation turns to shipwrecks. “Tomorrow I’ll take you to the top of a koppie – you’ll be able to see where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet,” Conrad says. He tells us about a three-day shipwreck trail that passes close to his farm. On this route hikers can see the remnants of ships like the Mishu Maru 38, a fishing trawler that sank near Cape Agulhas, and Africa’s southernmost point.
As the fire flickers, Suzan urges Conrad to tell us about his award-winning Rhône blend, the Strandveld Navigator. “We named this wine after Prince Henry the Navigator – the Patron of early Portuguese exploration. Like the handful of winemakers in the Strandveld, he was one of the first to explore the secrets around Africa’s southernmost tip,” he notes. Conrad is a born host and next he ushers us to a vertical tasting of Syrah. He has six glasses lined up for each person. We taste our way from 2006 to 2011. I gulp down heavenly tones of mocha, red berry and pepper.
In the morning we wake up to Overberg bliss: a lawn ideal for cricket, chickens cackling, morning light on a cellar and dirt roads waiting to be explored. Conrad leads the run to Pofadder Bos, his Sauvignon Blanc vineyard. He shows us the unique red colour of the soil. Trailed by three adoring dogs, we carefully jog past a herd of dubious cows and make our way through fields of fynbos. We’re amazed by the generous display of proteas. They all look like they’ve been to the hairdresser for a perm. From the top of the koppie, stretches of farmlands, marshlands and coastline lie before us. On the way back, Conrad points out his, and Africa’s, southernmost vineyard. “Remember the four S’s,” he says in reference to his best-selling First Sighting Sauvignon Blanc, “Single-vineyard, Southern-most, Strandveld and Sauvignon Blanc.”
The Black Oystercatcher
The Strandveld’s food philosophy rivals culinary approaches in top foodie destinations like San Francisco and France. Every bite has a story attached to it: either the fish was caught on the same day in Struisbaai or the greens were grown on the land you’re standing on. Dirk spotted the uniqueness of the Strandveld’s culinary scene and decided to make it accessible to more people. In 2008 he opened the Black Oystercatcher, a family-run restaurant that celebrates homegrown food and local culture.
We drive five minutes down the road to meet Dirk. Immediately it’s apparent that he is the alpha-male of the Strandveld. If he’s not making wine, he’s introducing hippos to the area and building landing-strips for small airplanes. He also chairs the 25-farmer strong Nuwejaars Special Management Area project, aimed at conserving the Strandveld through social, agricultural and environmental initiatives. He loves the Strandveld and fondly recalls childhood memories of camping next to a close-by dam. Today, this very dam is where five hippos live that Dirk reintroduced to the area after 150 years. The Black Oystercatcher restaurant sits where the farm’s stables used to be, but Dirk and his equally innovative wife, Sandra, managed to turn it into a space that radiates style and country luxury. Dirk presents us with a lineup of wines to taste. “Winemaking is straightforward,” he says. “You just have to follow a recipe.” Dirk’s “recipes” prove to be sensational. He recalls the weather conditions of every vintage, while we sip full-bodied Merlot, tropical Sauvignon Blanc and dry, crisp Rosé. For lunch, we snack on a platter of pastrami, local cheeses, figs and chicken liver, followed by black mussels and a homemade burger. I’m ready to give up city living for the Strandveld.
Situated close to holiday hotspots like Hermanus, the Black Oystercatcher is the ideal spot for a casual lunch or a special occasion. During December, Dirk hosts a number of events like a Sauvignon Blanc Festival and an Oyster Festival. Their most popular event is the Traditional Food and Music Day hosted on the 29th of December. “We serve boerekos and Oom Manie and his band show up to entertain the crowd,” Dirk explains. Oom Manie is apparently 82-years old and his choice of drink is vodka and water. Another favourite event in the area is the 1km braai that takes place on Dirk’s landing strip every year on Heritage Day – the local farmers are hoping to turn it into a big event. Besides food and wine, the Strandveld is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise. It is home to an astonishing variety of birds and from the Black Oystercatcher, kilometres of hiking and biking trails start. Dirk tells us about the historic paraffin route that passes through his farm. During the 1800’s, lighthouse keepers used to traverse this route with boxes of paraffin to keep lighthouse lamps burning.
I’m intrigued by the Strandveld and its lively history. That evening we huddle around a log fire crackling in our cottage and I start to read a Strandveld coffee-table book out loud. We’re transported to the Arniston, a ship that was wrecked along the coast in 1815 while making its way to England. Due to outdated navigational tools, the captain was under the impression that they had passed Cape Point. As a result, they headed north prematurely and hit rocks 800 metres from the shore. Only 6 out of 378 people survived. I continue reading about hidden treasures, onboard slave revolts, murders fueled by jealousy, drunken sailors and missions gone wrong. As I fall asleep that night, I think about all the people who have perished along this coast known as the Graveyard of Ships.
Just before bidding Conrad farewell, I tell him that the Strandveld - with its wholesome foods, its shipwreck trails and its gorgeous wines - can really become a tourist hotspot. He knows it, but I get the sense that he wishes he could keep it as unspoiled as it is right now for a little while longer.
Eat and Sleep
Things to do
Bredasdorp Shipwreck Museum: 028 424 1240, Opening hours: Open Monday to Friday from 9am to 4.45pm; Saturday from 9am to 2.45pm and Sunday from 10.30am to 12.30pm.
Elim Historical Village Tour: 074 5447733
Southernmost Tip of Africa, Agulhas: 028 435 6078
Source: Travel Ideas